Last week marked an important milestone in the struggle for equal rights, pluralism and religious freedom in Israel when Jerusalem’s district court determined that a 2003 Supreme Court ruling had not banned the Women of the Wall from praying in any particular place.
In making his ruling, the judge affirmed that women who wear tallitot at the Western Wall did not contravene “local custom” or disturb the public order, and should not be arrested.
The older ones among us will remember the historic day back in 1967 when, following the freeing of the Temple Mount by paratroopers, their commander, Lt. General Mordecai (Motta) Gur, declared “The Temple Mount is in our hands.”
He didn’t mean “orthodox hands” and he didn’t mean “male hands”. What he meant was that all Jews would now be able to enter the Old City as they had done prior to the partitioning of Jerusalem in 1948.
Following the 6 Day War, I can remember joining the many thousands of Israelis, who swarmed into the Old City from West Jerusalem. All were bound for just one place – the Western Wall. In those days, there was no paved plaza. There was no fence separating men from women. All Jews, religious and secular, gathered as one, feeling in some way that they had come to a spot which united them and symbolized their heritage and the history of their people.
Only later would the Western Wall become a charedi synagogue with a rabbi of its own, prayer lecterns and ushers who would ensure that women were dressed modestly. And so those, who had played no part in liberating the Old City, took control of a site that belonged to all Jews, religious and secular, men and women.
There are so many spheres of Jewish life in Israel in which an orthodox hegemony has claimed a monopoly on our heritage. We cannot marry as we wish. All religious streams in Judaism do not enjoy equal status and public funding and the so-called dati or orthodox expression of Judaism has used its political power to curb the kind of equal rights and religious freedoms that are enjoyed by Jews in every country in the western world.
The courageous struggle of the Women of the Wall is but one element of a changing mood in Israel. Secular Israelis are claiming back their Jewish heritage. Reform and Conservative synagogues and institutions are offering alternatives to those seeking ways to express themselves as Jews.
When a secular MK like Ruth Calderon stands on the Knesset podium and uses the time allotted to her to teach Talmud, it is a clear sign that we are turning the corner.
The struggle is not over, but last week’s ruling in Jerusalem’s district court is a further indication of the fact that “the times they are a-changin’”.